(Originally published 17 August 2016)
“The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of A New Hope!!!!”
Everyone and their dogs
Okay, not really breaking new ground here. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens takes a lot of plot threads from the series’ originator Star Wars, later subtitled ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’. There’s not really a huge discussion to be had about that-you were either bothered by it or you weren’t-but what has interested me is the comments from James Cameron saying it lacks imagination even compared to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Cameron was just lumping all of Lucas’ movies together in a blanket statement, or perhaps he genuinely enjoys the much maligned prequels, I don’t know. But it got me curious enough to rewatch them for the first time since pretty much they came out to see if they were as bad as popular culture has said they are.
I’m not gonna elaborate further, because you can’t put a letter into a Google search without coming across some guy’s rant on the fucking Star Wars prequels. However, I decided to look more at this idea of ‘originality’ and, if you put the generic ‘Chosen One’ angle aside, the Star Wars prequels do have somewhat of a more original story than The Force Awakens does.
Hear me out, here.
One of the things that strikes everyone about The Phantom Menace it is that it’s about…tax disputes. Later on you find out it’s part of an incredibly silly conspiracy to get more power to Chancellor Palpatine, but think about this. The instigator for the events that lead to the war in Star Wars started because of tax disputes. No way we can reflexively push that idea onto reality, can we?!
Also what was interesting about TPM is that it doesn’t really have a protagonist, not a clear one anyway. You could say it’s Qui-Gon Jinn, especially as he’s played by arguably the most bankable actor in the cast in 1997. Except that he doesn’t…really…do anything? After the opening, he dicks around Tatoine until they finally get off, fights Darth Maul, meets the Jedi Council and waits around for the battle to get started until he dies. He has as much forward drive in the story that Padmé does, or baby Anakin, or Obi-Wan stuck on the ship for the painfully long Tatooine sequence, or Jar Jar. Maybe Jar Jar Binks is the protagonist.
Or, just throwing it out there, maybe it’s this universe itself?
A lot of the Phantom Menace, and the next two movies, are really driven by uncovering a plot to overthrow the authority of the Galactic Senate and in doing so covertly undermining its authority by having the secret instigator use the failed rebellion as a way of gaining a stronghold in power. These films are surprisingly political in nature, way more so than the original trilogy or The Force Awakens. What made the Empire so powerful was due to the institutional failings of this previous system and using certain countermeasures against it to allow a dictator to gain full control. Adding to the fact that Palpatine’s main motivation is to gain legitimacy for a long-thought dead ideology, and it’s like David Icke wrote this.
I mean, looking at it like this, the prequels actually have a really interesting framework for a thought provoking and compelling political narrative. Then you watch the movies and realise that none of that potential was fully realised, but while they do not work as a whole, there was a spark of creativity to be gleamed here. Especially the first one, as the next two seem to be a bit more ‘Star Warsy’ in tone (hell, they even have very clear protagonists in Obi-Wan and Anakin, not that movies weren’t going to focus on the latter falling to the dark side, of course).
So let’s go into that-where did that spark of creativity come from? And by asking that, I mean ‘What can I assume gave that spark etc.’ instead of just looking up what actually probably motivated it, because where’s the fun in that? It’s not like George Lucas’ intentions have everrrrr been misconstrued on the internet before.
So it’s pretty well known that Lucas was inspired by old science fiction serials. One of the biggest sources was Flash Gordon, as he wished to remake that property for a contemporary audience (and we eventually got a Flash Gordon movie in the 80s and it was *glorious*). So grandiose space operas with large, oppressive villains and plucky, resourceful heroes, basic good vs evil adventure stories. Sweet, I can get behind that. And lots of people did!
But that was then (and 1980 and 1983). Times had change. Lucas had changed, as you do in over a decade and a half. He wanted to expand upon what he could do as a filmmaker. On top of building this world more expansively with new technology, the story needed to take on that extra dimension, otherwise you run the risk of it becoming stale.
To find what I believe the solution was, I turn to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, another…’beloved’ revival of a franchise Lucas created. The Indiana Jones series had similar creative origins to Star Wars-popular adventure serials that Lucas grew up on, though Jones wore its influence way more in its sleeve. In comes Crystal Skull, and the addition of the fucking alien stuff is an expansion of this as Indy is now roaming around in the 50s. The populist fantasy is more geared towards science fiction instead of pulpy postcolonial adventure fiction, which is based more in the mystical. So alas…aliens.
To move back to the prequels (as they, you know, came out before Crystal Skull…), I think the same logic kind of applies there, but in terms of what kind of science fiction people were watching in the 50s and 60s. Movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes, amongst many others, were heavily influenced by the politics of their time.
Lucas appears to try to ‘mature’ Star Wars by making the conflict more about dodgy tax deals and widespread conspiracies. Instead of having the broad science fiction adventure feel of the original trilogy, the prequels become more about how personal motivations and political machinations that took down a Federation and created an Empire. Let me point out, again, that none of this means the prequels are good, just that they have an interesting framework.
Is it possible that this is pure unfounded speculation on my part? Of course, but Star Was is based on these sci-fi narratives that Lucas grew up on, so it makes sense that they would try to mature the same way the genre matured when he was growing up. This is where The Force Awakens comes back into play.
So Lucas has no direct control over a main Star Wars movie for the first time in nearly four decades. Reigns have been handed over to (and we’ll just use the director for simplicity’s sake) J.J. Abrams, who is 20 years Lucas’ junior. So, by going by this train of thought, what defined science fiction in the way that pulp adventure did in the 30s/40s or political subtext did in the 50s/60s when he was growing up?
Star Wars, as a series, has always been defined by legacy, both within the movie’s narrative and the framing of how these stories are told. And it has been a victim of its own legacy, felt by Lucas when he tried to take the prequels in an entirely new direction. This is seen in just about every way people react to new material that comes out about it-it’s almost trapped by the image it itself has created.
The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie that harkens back to a genre that Star Wars helped redefine. And sure, its derivative narrative could more be down to cynical corporate handling and the need to franchise this shit than out of keeping with the nostalgic naval gazing, but I think this was inevitable. I also think it doesn’t hurt the movie (despite this being ‘My problems with’…).
Going back to what Cameron said, I don’t think the film lacks the imagination he claims it does. I quite enjoyed how The Force Awakens took elements from the series and helped modernise them, just like how Lucas did with the genre of science fiction in 1977. Having more ‘original’ ideas does not automatically translate into an original film. The Force Awakens’ biggest success in my eyes is taking a revival I was initially cynical towards and imbuing enough heart, charm and interesting ideas and set-ups that I sincerely cannot wait to see what happens to Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and all the other new cast, as well as the old, in future movies to come.
Sometimes imagination and ambitious ideas are not enough to make great films; sometimes the simplest concepts and sticking to tradition wield the best results. In terms of Star Wars, it may stagnate itself if it continues being a tribute to the altar it created, but trying to brush it down because it sticks too closely to A New Hope is reductionist and really takes credit away from what truly impressive a feat it was. Keeping to legacy isn’t always a bad thing, so hopefully Disney can expand passed this pitch and we get our generation’s Empire Strike Back without…getting another Empire Strikes Back.
Or not. Maybe the entire legacy of Star Wars is to make a major conglomerate (one rich enough to buy most nations 6 times over) billions of dollars. Perhaps that’s its greatest takeaway.